Creating flavor-bombs for occasions that are destined to be remembered in family folklore and photos, really thrills me. So when I received a text from a friend asking me to create a dessert menu/buffet for her son’s pre-wedding Shabbat celebration, that simply read: “Do whatever u want. trust u” I was giddy with the possibilities.
Some people prefer having parameters and restrictions when embarking on a project- it gives them a point to start at. I do not fall into that category. The more open-ended the project the more fantastical the results, is my way of thinking. So I began my fantasy baking project by flipping through the stacks of magazines and cookbooks that cover my side of the room. I also skimmed through my memory and imagination, checking out all the ideas that I put away because they were too over-the-top for everyday eating.
Blah, blah, blah…Nu, big talker – what’s on the menu when the world is your mixing bowl?!
I started at chocolate. There are always a few Chocoholics in the room, and I knew I had to give ’em something good. Something that they would approach wistfully, and with a little trepidation due to the possibility that this dessert could fulfill all their deepest and darkest chocolate desires. It had to showcase all the features that makes chocolate so darn irresistible- especially to Chocoholics, who in their hearts believe that when it comes to dessert there is nothing but chocolate. For them I made a Triple Chocolate Tart. Its base layer was made up of crushed dark chocolate biscuits. The middle layer featured a generous spread of rich and silky-smooth chocolate ganache. And to round it all out darkly, a small saucepan of glossy melted chocolate was poured over the top, and tilted and turned at every angle to ensure that every area of space was covered thickly in the stuff. It’s a lot of chocolate, maybe even too much for the casual cacao enthusiast, but for the die-hard chocolate lovers, the people who are almost religious in their devotion, it would hit ’em just right.
After the mandatory chocolate option was executed, I was free to explore other sweet regions. I figured that at a dessert party populated by traditional New Yawk-ers, there had to be cheesecake, of course cheesecake! I decided to double-down on the New York-iness of the dessert by adding a nice jab of coffee flavor to it. The cheesecake stood on a cinnamon-ey ‘Nilla wafer crust and was topped by sweet sour-cream foam and a sifting of cocoa powder. The cheesecake was NY flavor and attitude by the forkin’ spoonful.
….And then there was the Caramel Cake. I’ve been waiting a while to trot out this luscious, sweet slattern of a dessert. The first time I made it, I discovered my true identity as a Caramellow. Caramel is sweet and soft and is the flavor equivalent ofa mellow time spent in a warm and sunny kitchen. This Southern-style layer cake is a revelation in caramel. The icing needs to simmer in a heavy pot for a couple hours so that it can get to the consistency of loose pudding. It’s runny and it’s rich and it’s gooey and it’s messy- a sweet and beautiful mess. It spreads itself slowly over the three layers of yellow cake, pooling lushly at the bottom of the plate, so it’s impossible not to scoop up a lick with your finger, and if you’re a Caramellow the sweetness will flood through you and fill you with warmth and joy.
The Tres Leches Coconut-Pineapple Cake was my designated experiment in this Fantasy Baking Project. I’ve been working with coconut milk a lot lately, for both my sweet and savory recipes. I love how rich and creamy it is, and that it is dairy free is an incredible bonus when you’re kosher-conscious. I poked bullet-sized holes into the sturdy yellow cake layer with the back end of a wooden spoon, and then mixed together condensed milk, coconut milk, and regular milk with a shot of rum and poured it over the cake. On top of the soaked cake layer was fluffy lightly sweetened whipped cream, and then with the taste of a piña colada guiding me I marinated fresh slices of ripe pineapple in rum, and roasted them until they were slightly charred around the edges. It was a free-standing, tropical, and slightly boozy trifle, that I could not resist dotting with dabs of the leftover caramel. This cake was for the Islanders, people whose souls and hearts belong to the beach and whose taste buds seek out its sun-drenched and exotic flavors.
I wanted to offer a dairy-free option, my never-fail Kuchen-Buckle is simple and homely-looking compared with the diva desserts I had spent several days primping and coddling. But I knew it would hold its own in flavor. Its uncomplicated appeal lies in a simple cake lightly flavored with nut milk and slices of fresh summer fruit that sink into the batter as it bakes, and provides a lovely burst of flavor, texture, and color. Ms. Kuchen-Buckle will never be the most spectacular beauty at the party, often she’s overlooked and ignored in everyone’s haste to get to the chocolate tart, or the well-formed cheesecake, or the golden brown stacked caramel cake. But for those with an appreciation for simple and uncomplicated beautiful flavor, this cake is a winner. It’s ability to adapt to different flavorings and fruit toppings, makes it different every time, which is a virtue in itself.
I dropped the cakes off on Friday, handed them over with a silent blessing that they would each accomplish what I hoped for them: a sweet, soulful, and celebratory connection with every kind of dessert-lover present at the party… Then I went home to eat a bag of salty potato chips.